I think the first time I had the crap scared out of me by Christopher Lee was when I sat through Dracula A.D. 1972 (God bless Hammer Films!). I’d seen him in other movies – She (starring Ursula Andress), at least one of his Fu Manchu movies – and on television (two different roles on The Avengers, an Alfred Hitchcock Presents), but that was the first time I saw the power he capable of producing in a performance.
When home video began to take off, I rented a ton of Lee’s films – Count Dracula, The Wicker Man (I’d seen it in a theater, but just had to see it again), The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (he was a terrific Mycroft), The Magic Christian. And of course, he was the villain in a memorable episode of the cheese fest that was Space: 1999.
It seemed like he rarely played anything other than villains, but my, what villains they were – proud, noble, forceful and usually fiercely intelligent. And not all of them were supernatural forces – he was a magnificent Rochefort in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973); his Bond villain, Scaramanga (The Man With The Golden Gun, 1974) was the best of the Roger Moore era; he even played a villain for Disney (Return from Witch Mountain, 1978).
He was the frequently the best thing about a horrible film or TV show – Captain America II – Death Too Soon (1979), I’m looking at you! He excelled at spoofery, too – his villainous turn in 1983’s underrated The Return of Captain Invincible is a delight. His take on Death in Welcome to the Discworld (the short that was introduce a Terry Pratchett pilot – available as an extra on the DVD release of Soul Music, another Pratchett adaptation) is both hilarious and poignant.
The TV movies Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady (1991) and Incident at Victoria Falls (1992) might not have been vintage Holmes, but Lee’s Holmes was close to brilliant.
Classically trained, Lee performed songs in several of his films – The Tinker in the Rye in The Wicker Man; Name Your Poison in The Return of Captain Invincible and the song over the closing credits of horror film, Funny Man!
He sang on the concept album The King of Elfland’s Daughter – as the King of Elfland, of course. He got into heavy metal, too – working with a number of bands as a guest vocalist/narrator before recording a couple of solo albums. He even released two EPs of heavy metal Christmas songs!
As Count Dooku, Lee was, again, one of the few good things about the second Star Wars Trilogy and had continued to work right up until completion of Angels in Notting Hill (in which he plays a character called, The Boss, Mr. President) last year.
Although best known for playing villains, Lee is one of the rare individuals in show business about whom few if any have ever uttered a bad word. In interviews, he was always prepared and polite – though never one to suffer fools, he was never rude about it.
As I read a host of Twitter response to news of his death, one from Chloë Grace Moretz (who worked with him on Hugo) struck me as representative, ‘Rest in peace, it will always be an honor to say I got to know such a beautiful soul, Forever Changed.’
Lee was 93.